Just days before the Iowa caucuses, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s tweet went viral — but for all the wrong reasons.
The message was one very reminiscent of the pitch he had been making to Iowa voters in the closing days before the first votes of the 2020 campaign.
“In the face of unprecedented challenges, we need a president whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect,” Buttigieg wrote in the tweet sent on Wednesday afternoon as he campaigned in rural swaths of Iowa.
It wasn’t long before critics highlighted his use of the phrase “American heartland.” Some criticized Buttigieg for using coded language, saying that “heartland” was a pseudonym for midwestern American, without taking into account the people of color who live there. Others took issue with Buttigieg suggesting that so-called “heartland” values were more important than the values of urban or coastal or southern parts of the country.
The controversy drew nearly 12,000 comments on Twitter, including from award winning director Ava DuVernay.
“Respectfully, where is the American Heartland located exactly in your mind as you write this tweet?” DuVernay wrote. “Does it include Compton and other places like it? Because us folks from those places would like a president shaped by our vision too. Serious question. Would love an answer.”
Buttigieg has been arguing to Iowans that the next President should come from the American Midwest, pitching his experience running his hometown of South Bend, Indiana, as mayor. That message is intended to contrast with his opponents, many of whom currently serve in positions in Washington or previously did.
“It might not be a bad idea to send in somebody to Washington, rather than from Washington, maybe somebody who can actually walk from his house to the nearest cornfield,” Buttigieg told voters in Pella, Iowa, on Monday.
Asked by CNN on Thursday about the criticism of his tweet, Buttigieg said his use of “heartland” in the tweet didn’t mean what his critics implied.
“I have a vision of family values that has room for families like mine, a vision for patriotism that is about preventing conflict … and not about any kind of militarism,” Buttigieg said. “And my experience of being from middle America, living in the Midwest, has also been one of racial diversity.
“My own community, 40-45% people of color, and the future of the American Heartland is racially diverse,” he added.
Buttigieg added that his use of the phrase was intended to reclaim an idea that has been “used in certain ways in our politics in the past, and ensure and insist that they are part of an inclusive vision for the future.”
But for many people of color, particularly black Americans who comprise about 10% of the population of the Midwest, “heartland” has rarely been used in American politics to include them.
They argue that in a predominantly white state of Iowa — a place Buttigieg regularly refers to as the “heartland” — his use of the phrase invokes an overly simplistic (and white) view of American values.
“I grew up in the so-called heartland. Land of casseroles and county fairs and Friday night bingo. And yet it seems that term does not encompass the neighborhoods where I lived and the folk of the great migration that raised me. Ya know?” wrote journalist Michele Norris, in reference to Buttigieg.
South Bend, where Buttigieg was mayor for eight years, may be a small midwestern city, but it is also one that is more than 40% nonwhite.
But as he has run for president, his handling of a police shooting of a black resident in the summer of 2019 prompted intense criticism that has followed him on the campaign trail. And the blowback to his tweet comes as he continues to struggle with earning the support of potential black voters and as he has had to address concerns from his own staff about his campaign’s handling of diversity and inclusion issues.
Buttigieg is not the only candidate — even in this presidential race — to highlight their ties to the heartland. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar‘s presidential slogan is “Leading from the Heartland,” a reference to her memoir entitled “The Senator Next Door: A Memoir from the Heartland.”
And former President Barack Obama repeatedly reference his maternal grandparents, who he would say “came from the heartland,” after their Scotish-Irish ancestors settled in Kansas 200 years ago.